NBA (Free Agent) Action Is Fantastic

“Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman, legendary Los Angeles screenwriter, who died in November of 2018, explaining the movie business. (And also, it turns out, the basketball business). 

On Friday night around 8:20 pacific the biggest earthquake to hit Los Angeles in 25 years shook the city of angels, but the epicenter of the quake was around 100 miles away, leaving most of the city shaken but unharmed.

But a little less than three hours later an NBA free agent decision shook the sports world to its core and the epicenter of this quake was squarely in downtown Los Angeles, the Staples Center to be exact — Kawhi Leonard was headed to the Los Angeles Clippers and he was bringing Paul George with him, instantly taking the Clippers from 20-1 also-ran odds to win the NBA title to the 3-1 favorites.

It was a coup of epic proportions, Kawhi the Quiet had, in one fell swoosh, felled LeBron the Loud.

And LeBron and his posse didn’t see it coming at all.

Sheesh.

This is a story that shook Los Angeles, the NBA, and pro sports in general to its very foundations and it offers intriguing lessons not just about sports, but about our present world of media and business. Its aftershocks will continue to be felt for years and years in the future.

And it all started with an earthquake rattling Los Angeles on a Friday evening, which felt like a perfect metaphor for five days of Kawhi fever which had overtaken the city of Los Angeles, since NBA free agency began.

While LeBron and the erstwhile leader of his “braintrust” agent Rich Paul sat courtside in Las Vegas, blissfully unaware of the machinations taking place back in Los Angeles, the Clippers front office feverishly worked the phones, attempting to pull off the incredible — sign the NBA’s best young player, the reigning champion and Finals MVP, and pair him with the another of the NBA’s best young players.

All without the Lakers, the Raptors, or any other NBA team becoming aware.

Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had grown up in the greater Los Angeles area and each man had a desire to return to his hometown. But Paul George had re-upped with the Thunder and chosen not to join the Lakers last season.

Now Kawhi had the chance to create a superteam and join LeBron and Anthony Davis in their title quest with the Lakers, but he didn’t want that — he wanted Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, Jerry West, and the Clippers. He wanted LA, but he wanted his own version of LA, not the glitz and glamour and perpetual social media updates and mini-dramas of LeBron, he wanted LA his own way.

To do so, he and the Clippers had to pull off the moves of a chess grandmaster.

Consider what happened when news broke at 11 pacific time (two in the morning on the east coast) that Kawhi was joining the Clippers and Paul George was coming with him — everyone was shocked, including the odds markets which had given no suggestion this might happen.

Kawhi’s inner circle had stayed completely silent, providing no leaks surrounding their free agent decision-making. Meanwhile the Lakers and the Raptors were leaking everything. Magic Johnson let everyone know Kawhi had called him multiple times while he was at church, Kawhi’s return to Toronto featured live helicopter coverage of his arrival and his trip to the hotel. Drake got involved in the Raptors pitch, all of this was reported with breathless fanfare, leading the media and the masses who inform them to believe this was a two horse race — Kawhi was headed to the Raptors or the Lakers.

But the Clippers?

The Clippers stayed silent about their meetings with Kawhi and what had been discussed.

The result? All media speculation centered around the Lakers and the Raptors.

And so, interestingly, did most of the players Kawhi was reaching out to. Kawhi the Quiet called Kevin Durant and tried to get him to come to the Clippers. Durant wanted to go east, but Kawhi wasn’t finished. He also called Paul George and convinced George to request a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The two players even met, secretly, in Los Angeles.

The same was true of Kawhi’s meeting with the Clippers, which happened in secret at Doc Rivers’s Malibu beach house.

Think about this, George managed to request a trade from the Thunder and even with all the breathless media attention of NBA free agency, no one knew about it at all. Compare this with how Anthony Davis requested his trade from New Orleans — Rich Paul told every media member about it in the country. The result was Anthony Davis’s exit from the Pelicans was a prolonged mess, a carnival of excessive awkwardness.

Meanwhile the Clippers were having secret meetings with Kawhi, Kawhi was having secret meetings with Paul George, Paul George requested a trade, and the Clippers negotiated the entire deal and no one knew about it until late last night when the news is officially released.

It’s all simply incredible.

So what did we learn from Kawhi to the Clippers? Here are ten lessons.

1. Individuals matter more than big brands.

Think about this for moment — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose to play for the Brooklyn Nets over the New York Knicks and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George chose to play for the Los Angeles Clippers over the Lakers.

While brands like the Knicks and Lakers may get a ton of attention, we live in the world where individual talent trumps the history of brands. It used to be brands made superstars, now superstars can make brands. The top talent picked the two teams on the east and west coast that are the perpetual little brothers.

Whether it’s Donald Trump remaking and rebranding the Republican party in his image, Howard Stern making satellite the equivalent of terrestrial radio, or Dan Patrick, Skip Bayless, and Colin Cowherd all proving their audiences would follow them from ESPN to new jobs in sports — we live in an individually empowered era.

The individual matters more than ever before; they bend the big institutions to their will, not the other way around.

The name on the back of the jersey really does matter more than the name on the front of the jersey.

2. Thanks to the rise of individual personalities the NBA’s a reality show. 

What drives that reality show? The minute by minute decisions of superstar diva athletes, who often chronicle their every thought on social media. Are they happy? Do they get along? Will they commit long term? Sports has always been a male soap opera, but the rise of social media has put this process on steroids and made it visible to all.

No one personifies this era more than LeBron James, the King of Millennials, who takes to social media to express his every thought and emotion.

That might be great for LeBron’s personal brand, but it also creates its own narrative — LeBron is the heroic protagonist of his own story, beset by challenges brought to bear thanks to his lesser talented compatriots. Be they a head coach, David Blatt, a wayward teammate, Tristan Thompson & J.R. Smith, or a recalcitrant owner, now Jeanie Buss, before that Dan Gilbert, all of them are foils to LeBron’s grand ambitions, the serfs who refuse to carry out the king’s brilliant bidding.

That narrative has burnished’s LeBron superstardom — James is the sun around which the NBA’s lesser satellites rotate — it’s also created challenges, not least among them, many players don’t have a desire to be the supporting actor in LeBron’s Hollywood epic. Indeed, it’s particularly telling that with all the money the Lakers have to spend, the only players LeBron can get to commit to his team — aside from Anthony Davis who honestly seems starstruck by LeBron — are role players the Lakers are forced to overpay.

And while the NBA may be a great reality show, that’s led to the least interesting part of the league becoming its actual games. The regular season — and even the playoffs — feel like an afterthought compared to the offseason drama.

Will that change with Kawhi to the Clippers giving rise to NBA parity? We’ll see. (I certainly think Kawhi to the Clippers is a GREAT thing for the NBA when it comes to storylines). But in the meantime, here’s a thought to leave you with — the NFL is the most popular sport in America by far — its ratings crush the NBA’s — yet we rarely see anywhere near the same player drama in the NFL.

Why not?

I think it’s because of the franchise tag, which allows teams to limit, for the most part, player movement.

So here’s an idea that’s probably worth an entire column — what if NFL quarterbacks had the same freedom of movement as top NBA players? That is, what if the franchise tag was eliminated from the NFL in the next collective bargaining agreement and top NFL quarterbacks truly hit the open market for all bidders to compete and sign? Can you imagine the frenzy this would provoke? As is, it’s virtually impossible for a healthy top quarterback to hit free agency — Kirk Cousins is the only one to do so this century (Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were injured and Nick Foles wasn’t the starter). Imagine if the NFL had the same intrigue for quarterbacks as the NBA does for top players — wouldn’t that be great for league interest? I think it would.

3. There’s a big difference between a journalist and an opinionist, but the line has never been more difficult to discern.

This is true in all media now, but I feel like the Kawhi story was a great example of the challengers in our modern sports media ecosystem — who’s a journalist and who’s an opinionist?

Let me simplify this for you if you’re having trouble distinguishing between the two — a journalist only reports facts (hopefully), an opinionist tells you what he or she thinks about those facts (hopefully).

Let me give you an easy example of the difference in the Kawhi story — Jalen Rose — he of the 99% chance the Raptors are signing Kawhi pronouncement — is an opinionist, not a journalist. Adrian Wojnarowski is a journalist, not an opinionist. When a Woj bomb lands — what fans call Wojnarowski’s trademark news breaks — every fan takes them seriously. Woj’s word is gospel; Rose’s words are just entertainment. (Adam Schefter and Jay Glazer would be the Woj’s of the NFL.)

There are many people who want to be Woj and there are many people who want to be Jalen Rose, but our current media ecosystem often creates hybrid figures — people who express opinions but are also “journalists.” This hybrid often creates confusion among the general public. It’s why the media is generally detested.

Being Woj is hard because facts are hard. If they weren’t, every former player, like Jalen Rose attempted to do so, could be Woj.

But our current media system creates artificial expressions of certainty — journalists don’t keep getting on television if they say, “I don’t know,” to every question they truly don’t know the answer to — our current media environment demands certainty in uncertain times.

And while the general public may express derision over the opinionists who get things wrong, there are almost no consequences to being wrong.

People want to be entertained, they care very little about right or wrong. The entertainment value of a show matters far more than the accuracy of the show.

There will probably be more people who watch Jalen Rose on television because he was wrong. Indeed, being spectacularly wrong is probably better than being quietly right. Because polarizing opinion-making cuts through the noise of uncertainty.

In the world of sports, that’s often fine — they’re just sports, after all — but where this conflation of journalism and opinionists becomes downright scary is when you transfer everything I just wrote to the world of politics. We have very few true journalists in politics any more, almost all of them, thanks to the lure of television, books, radio and podcasts, have been co-opted into the world of opinion.

Which leads to the worst hybrid of all — opinionists trying to masquerade themselves as journalists.

4. Kawhi’s the anti-LeBron.

Here’s my thesis: if you’re a sports superstar you shouldn’t need to use social media.

Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan don’t have Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook accounts where they update us on their every move all day long. For most of their careers neither did Tom Brady or Kobe Bryant.

Charles Barkley is the most influential — and maybe best — member of the sports media today and he doesn’t do social media.

And while LeBron is an obsessive social media user in Hollywood — guess who isn’t — Leonardo Dicaprio, George Clooney, and many of the biggest Hollywood stars.

They understand that in an era of excessive attention, sometimes the most impressive thing is privacy, let others do the talking for you.

And I have to confess, I think Kawhi’s silence makes him far more interesting than he would be if he posted on social media all the time.

I live in the world of social media and owe much of my career success to Twitter, but last year several people younger than me in this business told me I needed to be on Instagram. So I signed up for an Instagram account. I didn’t really find it that interesting — it seemed to me to mostly be a platform for good looking people to make themselves look even more good looking thanks to all the available filters — but I was astounded by the number of people who feel compelled to see a pretty girl’s picture and tell her how pretty she is.

This is like 99% of Instagram’s business model.

If you took away pretty women from Instagram the entire business would collapse.

I have no doubt it’s a great business, but what utility do I actually get from it?

I make a living with words — written or spoken — and Instagram is mostly about pictures and videos. And those pictures and videos don’t have very many words involved in them.

Twitter isn’t perfect, but it’s where actual news breaks. For the most part, it seems to me, Instagram is entirely fluff.

Kawhi makes a living playing basketball and if he does it better than anyone else, we’ll care a great deal about him. What he says on social media has almost no bearing on his basketball talents at all. His brand, as it were, is his basketball excellence and we can all watch that every night.

So the fact that Kawhi has virtually no social media presence I find to be far more interesting than if he did. The most rebellious thing to do on social media these days isn’t to share every single thought you have all day long — it’s to actually interact with the people around you in person and not use your phone for an entire evening out.

Kawhi’s zigging while the rest of the NBA world is zagging and traditionally the big wins in this country have not come by following conventional wisdom.

Kawhi didn’t just repudiate LeBron and his superteam, he rejected LeBron’s world view; Kawhi is the anti-LeBron.

5. LeBron’s advisers are overrated and overpaid.

LeBron James has long fancied himself the premier power broker in the NBA. And his agent, Rich Paul, just got a Sports Illustrated cover story talking about how much of a mover and a shaker he is. (The headline of the article was, “The King Maker: Why Rich Paul Will Own the NBA Summer.” Oops. It was written, in a perfect synergy, by the same writer who penned LeBron’s SI article announcing he’d return to Cleveland).

So what in the world is LeBron paying his crew for if they have him sitting courtside at the NBA’s summer league while the Clippers yank the rug right out from underneath the Lakers feet? They should be LeBron’s eyes and ears yet they weren’t even aware the palace coup was happening, that the Staples Center was being taken over by a better team, that LeBron wasn’t even the king of his own arena any longer.

LeBron, Inc. was caught completely flat footed, they had no idea that they’d been played. While the Clippers were working like mad to bring Kawhi to the same building they play basketball inside, LeBron’s posse was completely unaware what was going on.

There’s no way LeBron and Rich Paul would have been courtside if they’d known the coup Kawhi was planning. This was basketball’s version of the Red Wedding, LeBron thought he was about to be coronated and he was gutted instead.

Now LeBron’s 35 years old and he’s not even the king of his own arena, that’s Kawhi, who is seven years younger and has a more talented roster with better coaching and better management surrounding him.

While LeBron’s going to try and get Frank Vogel fired soon, Doc Rivers will be piloting the Clippers in the direction of a championship.

This was an utter indictment of all of LeBron’s advisers.

6. The Clippers have a brilliant businessman running their show in Steve Ballmer. 

Here’s what I regret in my past week of Kawhi coverage on radio and TV — underrating the fact that Steve Ballmer rose in business by fighting battles on behalf of Microsoft for decades.

Ballmer knew that the Clippers were facing an incredible crisis — if Kawhi joined the Lakers to create a big three then the Clippers would be totally irrelevant.

So the Clippers had to do whatever it took to get Kawhi, even if that meant trading a ton of assets for Paul George.

While everyone was writing off the Clippers, the truth was this — the Clippers were the smartest and best managed team in Los Angeles. I mistook their silence for weakness, for a belief that they weren’t actually in contention for Kawhi.

But what that silence really represented was discipline.

If the Clippers and their braintrust didn’t talk to anyone then the media would ignore them, even better for the Clippers, the media would dismiss their chances. While the Lakers thought they were competing with the Raptors alone, the Clippers engaged in artful subterfuge, a brilliant counterinsurgency that wiped out the Lakers before the Lakers even knew they were being attacked.

7. What if Kawhi and the Clippers intentionally let this play out to crush the Lakers?

This is the one theory that I’ve been floating all week.

What if Kawhi was actually going to join the Clippers no matter what and he managed to hold the Lakers hostage by ensuring all the best free agents were off the board before he made his decision? That would be next level brilliant.

It’s possible the Lakers inaction in free agency was just a byproduct of his indecision, but either way what an incredible outcome for Kawhi.

The moment the news broke — and how much would have you loved to see LeBron and the Lakers faces when this happened — the Lakers immediately set about rashly overspending for the remaining talent on the board. $30 million for Danny Green?! $16 million for Caldwell-Pope?! The Lakers were forced to way overbid for crumbs left on the free agent marketplace. As these crumbs are added to the Laker franchise the usual suspects will argue the crumbs are actually a better cake, but that will be 100% spin. Kawhi played the Lakers like a fiddle.

8. What about poor Russell Westbrook?

First Kevin Durant leaves him for California and now Paul George leaves him for California.

And Westbrook’s from California himself!

It’s hard to believe Westbrook will play out his contract in Oklahoma City now that the franchise is rebuilding. So where will he head next?

The NBA drama never stops spinning, even after the biggest earthquake in modern free agency.

9. Kawhi’s advisers used this week to test who they could trust — who would remain quiet?

News about Kawhi’s big move broke while I was out to dinner in Los Angeles with a friend in the media business. On our drive to dinner my dinner partner, who has strong connections to the Clippers, said, “They (the Clippers) have kept this entire Kawhi story super quiet because they believe Kawhi values privacy and he might pick the team who talks to the media the least. I really think Kawhi may end up on the Clippers.”

Just as we were finishing dessert my radio boss Scott Shapiro texted me, “Kawhi to the Clippers!!!!”

“I told you!” screamed my dinner companion.

Just a couple of hours after the earth shook, the two quietest and most steady on their feet in Los Angeles, Kawhi and the Clippers management, had just cemented their union.

10. The final lesson is this — happiness is internal, not external. 

All of these NBA multi-millionaires don’t seem that happy.

If you were happy you wouldn’t constantly be seeking greener pastures. Not to go all psychological on you at the end of this long column of analysis, but the NBA’s stars are the ultimate believers in our consumer culture. They believe — like many people reading this — that if they just had something external — a new car, a new apartment, a new house, a new partner, a new NBA franchise in a better city — they’d be happier, but what you learn as you age is this — most of being happy isn’t about external factors, it’s about internal joy.

When you use external measures to dictate your happiness, you always lose.

Happiness really is internal, you can’t consume your way to it by adding up external assets.

Maybe Kawhi knows this, maybe he doesn’t.

But the more time you spend on social media, as a general rule, the less happy you are.

And I’m not even sure Kawhi Leonard’s flip phone has the internet.

But internet or not, Kawhi shook the NBA to its core on Friday night in Los Angeles and in the end his flip phone set off more aftershocks than the biggest quake to hit near LA in 25 years.

Kawhi the Quiet, the man who never tells us anything, was the new King of Los Angeles and the NBA.

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